The Weird and Wild Side of Coles County, Part 1

I thought it would be of interest to my readers to share the story of how I became fascinated with Coles County, Illinois. Most of you are familiar with Coles County either through my book, or because Ashmore Estates has been featured on TV shows like Ghost Hunters and Ghost Adventures. Less well known is the story of how places like Ashmore Estates rose from obscurity to capture the imagination of people all over the United States. Join me for this three part article and take a journey through the recent past.

I have always thought Coles County was a unique and fascinating place, but even I was surprised when in June 2010 CNN rebroadcast a WTHI Channel 10 News in Terre Haute report on Lerna’s “world’s fastest pop machine.” Purchased in the late 1970s by Ivan Thompson for his welding business, the faded, clattering soda machine has become something of a tourist attraction in this village of 300 in Pleasant Grove Township.

As a student at Eastern Illinois University in Charleston, I often brought my friends to it while I showed them various sites around Coles County. They never failed to be amazed by how quickly the cans fell into the delivery tray. Like the independently-owned Burger King in Mattoon, the “world’s fastest pop machine” adds to the charm of life in the county, a charm that has not been lost on the outside world.

I first laid my suitcase down on the bare mattress of my dorm room on the seventh floor of Carman Hall on August 17, 2000. I never thought I would spend the next eight years at Eastern Illinois University, but as a senior in high school, EIU had been my first and only choice. My parents had met there. My mother attended Eastern from 1965 to 1966, and my father attended from 1963 to 1967. My great-uncle John Kleen also attended EIU.

You could say the university was a bit of a family tradition, but the circumstances that led me to stay for the better part of a decade were unexpected and unplanned. Looking back, I find myself missing the ivy covered walls of Old Main, Chubby’s Pizza, and the wooded ridges and ravines of Fox Ridge State Park. Most of all, I miss the friends I made and the people I met along the way.

I still remember when Hardees sat on the corner of 4th and Lincoln where a brand new Jimmy John’s sits today, and when Jimmy John’s (the original!) was located in a small shop in the alley behind 4th Street Records. I remember every abandoned restaurant along Lincoln Avenue (How Yall Are?), late nights at Lincoln Gardens, lunch at Boxa, Campus Perk in the basement of Thomas Hall, and when the Panther Paw was called Stix.

I attended EIU during a transition period, when campus was perpetually under construction—whether it was the new food court in the Student Union, Booth Library, or the fine arts center. I was a freshman when the Electronic Writing Portfolio requirement was introduced. I met three of EIU’s presidents: Carol Surles, Lou Hencken, and Bill Perry; walked in two homecoming parades; wrote a bi-weekly column for the Daily Eastern News; and even watched the infamous Blair Hall fire of April 28, 2004.

I turned 19 my freshman year of college, and as I tasted my first real experience living on my own, I made it my mission to explore every nook and cranny of Charleston and Coles County—my new home. I hoped that former students had left behind something for me to discover, even if it was only a name carved into a study carrel in the library.

I imagined I might have even found my dad’s name among the colorful tapestry of signatures embedded into the cedar, like a time capsule reaching out from one generation to another. In return, I hoped to leave something of myself behind, so that one day, perhaps my own son or daughter would find something to remind them that I once walked those same halls.

But time moves inexorably forward, and so I found myself caught up in the day to day drama and intrigue of college life. I was plagued with indecision and all the troubles of an uncertain future. I took a semester off, changed majors, and dropped one too many classes, until I found myself an undergrad for six long years. Rather than leave Eastern, I decided to earn my graduate degree there.

I knew the professors, and Coleman Hall, where I took endless philosophy, history, and creative writing classes, was like a second home. I finally left in the spring of 2008. Over the years, however, I had become familiar with Coles County in ways I never anticipated. Charleston was no longer like a second home—it was home, and by the time I said goodbye, I knew a great deal about the history and the people of Coles County.

Local Legend Tripping

It started with one abandoned building the winter of my sophomore year. My roommate had mentioned it—“that abandoned insane asylum out in the country”—but it wasn’t until I came back from winter break in January 2001 that I learned that place was called Ashmore Estates. Two friends, Monica and Oona (both seniors), took me out there. When Monica and Oona were freshmen, Mike Rice and Matt Fear, the “Men of Adventure,” wrote a satirical piece for the Halloween issue of the Verge section of the Daily Eastern News on how to make Ashmore Estates into a “highly illegal” Halloween escapade.

“No one is really sure what this building once housed,” they wrote. “But there are stories. These tales revolve around pagan rituals and dismembered bodies. We aren’t sure if any of them are true or not, but they sure do make for three floors… of unadulterated fun.”

The two also described possibly encountering a severed pig’s head in the stairwell. Like countless others had done, Monica, Oona, and I parked alongside the gravel road a few yards away from the building and walked through a thin layer of snow on the fallow corn field. Like the “Men of Adventure,” I knew nothing about what this building was or what it had been. As we carefully explored its interior, any story about it seemed possible, severed pig’s heads and all. It was years before I knew anything about its real history.

In the meantime, I began to search for other ghost stories and legends in and around the area. There were a few listed on the Internet, but other than Mary Hawkins and Pemberton Hall, none of them had appeared in any books on the subject. Slowly but surely, I put together a list: Ashmore Estates, “Ragdoll” Cemetery, St. Omer Cemetery. As was often the case with information online, it was not very helpful when it came to locating these places. I was deep into the search for St. Omer Cemetery when, at a cookout outside the University Apartments, a friend introduced me Jennifer.

Jenny had lived in the area since adolescence and was also interested in ghost stories. She was more than happy to show me both St. Omer and “Ragdoll,” and she introduced me to a few more places as well, such as Airtight Bridge. Airtight Bridge was particularly fascinating, but what happened there—why locals talked about it in such hushed tones—remained a mystery. There were the usual tales of phantom automobiles and vanishing or odd characters, but there were also rumors of a murder.

After speaking to a number of local residents and professors at EIU, I learned that a woman’s body had been found near the bridge sometime in 1980. So, I did what any good historian would have done: I sat in front of a microfilm reel of the Charleston Times-Courier for the year in question and scanned the headlines every day until I came across one pertaining to the Airtight case…

Join me in Part 2!

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